These days, it seems as if we are surrounded by the concept of mindfulness. From the cover of Time to Anderson Cooper, the subject of mindfulness is ubiquitous..
Is it just the latest trend, or is it really good for… everything?
First, it’s important to understand what mindfulness is. Before embarking on any program with mindfulness in the title, it’s worth exploring the meaning of the term.
What is the definition of mindfulness?
-Many existing definitions of mindfulness don’t feel entirely adequate. One of the more recognized definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn who said, “mindfulness is paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment without judgment.” This is a seemingly simple statement that actually contains some very profound basic principles of mindfulness.
Paying attention sounds superficially very easy, until we realize that we have arrived at work without having paid conscious attention to any moment of our drive. Spending time in the present moment is also less common than it appears. Pause for a moment to think of how much time we spend mulling over the past or planning for the future, and how little time we actually spend in the experience of being here now.
The third element, non-judgment, can also be elusive. We love to sort things into good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, for us or against us. It is rare to merely meet an experience without judging it.
What does mindfulness look like? How can I learn to be mindful?
An easy way to look at mindfulness is as a way to train the mind. It is more of a process than an actual product. It can be thought of as the deliberate practice of cultivating presence and turning off autopilot.
It is not about escaping reality, achieving bliss, or an altered state. It is about being fully present to reality.
The best way to learn mindfulness is to practice it. An excellent analogy is that everything that one can learn about the taste of a banana in a 20-week seminar is completely eclipsed by one bite.
The one bite of mindfulness would equate to attending a daylong or weekend retreat, signing up for a 5-week mindfulness training class, or an official 8-week, mindfulness-based stress-reduction class.
What in it for me? Why should I try it?
There is a mounting body of solid scientific evidence showing that mindfulness can enhance emotional self-regulation and positive emotional states. Mindfulness-based therapies have been useful in reducing relapses of patients with moderate depression, in reducing relapses of substance abuse, and even in diminishing self-harm and suicidal behavior in patients with borderline personalities. It is an opportunity to be more fully present in one’s life. Cultivating the qualities of presence and nonjudgment in the present moment can be revolutionary.
It’s hard to believe that anything is really good for everything. However, in our current state of highly fragmented attention, it is hard to think of any instance in which mindfulness would not support us. .
If you are interested in learning more, we invite you to participate in a one-day mindfulness retreat sponsored by The Whole U and UW Medicine on Saturday, September 26 from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), this retreat will target many stress-related issues. Tim Burnett from Mindfulness Northwest will lead us in immersing ourselves in body awareness and inner-care. We will practice in silence and conclude with a group discussion and dialog from the instructor. It will be at the Center for Urban Horticulture, pictured above. The cost is $45 and there are 125 spots available. Spouses and partners are welcome. Register here.
Claudia Finkelstein is a general internist in the Department of Medicine and directs the UWSOM Faculty Wellness Programs. She has been endeavoring to be mindful for well over a decade.